I’ve been thinking a lot lately about schools, about language’s culture replicating function*, and about the “achievement ethic,” a phrase which reinforces the status seeking, grade grubbing, high stakes test driven culture that those of us who work closely with students have come to despise. And I’ve been thinking about the ways that our broader culture reinforces these notions. (See how, for instance, education is nestled dependently within the context of economics here.)
And then I stumbled upon this article, “Has Neoliberalism Turned Us All Into Psychopaths?,” by psychologist Paul Verhaege.
Do you see any parallels between the achievement ethic, and especially its basis as the foundation of the push for market based school reform, and Verhaege’s description of the effects of neoliberalism on our lives?
“A neoliberal meritocracy would have us believe that success depends on individual effort and talents, meaning responsibility lies entirely with the individual and authorities should give people as much freedom as possible to achieve this goal. For those who believe in the fairytale of unrestricted choice, self-government and self-management are the pre-eminent political messages, especially if they appear to promise freedom. Along with the idea of the perfectible individual, the freedom we perceive ourselves as having in the west is the greatest untruth of this day and age.” (emphasis added)
The individual striving for status and freedom is a never-ending upward arc as measured by grades, test scores, college acceptance and then income.
“Our presumed freedom is tied to one central condition: we must be successful – that is, ‘make’ something of ourselves. You don’t need to look far for examples. A highly skilled individual who puts parenting before their career comes in for criticism. A person with a good job who turns down a promotion to invest more time in other things is seen as crazy – unless those other things ensure success. A young woman who wants to become a primary school teacher is told by her parents that she should start off by getting a master’s degree in economics – a primary school teacher, whatever can she be thinking of?” (emphasis added)
Because this achievement is the individualistic quest for freedom, this arc moves away from the necessary constraints of community and belonging. Our notion of achievement is a competitive (i.e., over and against others) quest towards status, against community.
“There are constant laments about the so-called loss of norms and values in our culture. Yet our norms and values make up an integral and essential part of our identity. So they cannot be lost, only changed. And that is precisely what has happened: a changed economy reflects changed ethics and brings about changed identity.” (emphasis added)
The achievement ethic really is an impossible attempt to rise above the unavoidable constraints of community. Like the myth of Icarus, our economy and our schools ask us to rise above the constraints of being human, of thus avoiding (or “freeing” us from) the issues and concerns that come with actually residing with others on this earth.
Our measures of a highly cheapened form of success are turning us, and our children, into psychopaths.
“The current economic system is bringing out the worst in us.”
(*For more on how language replicates and creates culture, see the important work of Chet Bowers: